Pressure and Your Athlete | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Pressure and Your Athlete


About me

Welcome to the weekly Q&A with achach Rebecca session. I am here as your high performance coach to help you, your athlete, or your athletes if you’re a coach, find peak performance through the mind-body connection. I do this in a couple of different ways. I’m here every week live on Facebook and on the podcast answering questions from you guys, parents, athletes and coaches that will help you become the best version of yourself.

I also do one-on-one work over Skype or FaceTime. I work with athletes from age 8 to 18 and my specialty is helping people overcome fear, build confidence, and then find flow. Those are the three areas where I ultimately want everybody to experience flow in. Flow is that sensation of everything falling into place, knowing that your training is completely paying off. Then, the final way you can use my services or reach me is through the Perform Happy community. It is a complete online mental toughness training center. That’s all online. It’s got courses, Q&A, live stuff as well as access to me in a much discounted price.


Perform Happy Update

Before I dive into this week’s question, I have an announcement. I’m starting next week a brand new version of the community, entirely brand new. It’s going to be super mobile friendly. It’s got everything you could possibly want if you’re dealing with fear or mental blocks, if you want to build confidence or if you want more of that elusive flow experience. Also, if you’re a parent and you want to find a group of people who are going through the same thing you are as a sports parent then you can find it there. I’m going to have a whole coaching section which I’m super excited about, because I was once a gymnastics coach and I wished they had more resources for helping my kids become more mentally tough. That’s in the works.

Now, here’s our question of the week. It comes from a coach and she asks:

Q: “As a coach, what steps do we take to not add more pressure?”


Now, I’m going to talk specifically to coaches this week, so if you have a coach who this might be helpful for, feel free to send it on. If you’re a parent, you can probably benefit from this too.

Here’s my response to this coach who says, “How do we not add more pressure?” She was asking this specifically around gymnasts she teaches that have fear. Pressure is something that all athletes come up against when you’re competing, when you’re in a tournament, when it’s go time, your adrenaline goes up. Your body tenses up. There’s more on the line. Those of us who are perfectionists kick into super high gear of, it all has to be perfect, which makes you tense up and then you make mistakes. Pressuring you’re athlete, in those competitive situations, help you narrow your focus in. It ups your drive and ups your adrenaline.


Pressure: Our Friend that can Derail Youpressure

There are two sides to it where pressuring your athlete can be something that derails people, but it’s also something that helps you tap in the flow. That’s why flow happens more often when you’re doing something hard or scary, just outside of your comfort zone or current skill level. Pressure is actually our friend. I actually work with a world champion athlete who, if she doesn’t have a high pressure competition, she gets bored and then she makes mistakes. She needs that extra narrowing in.

When kids are dealing with fear, I call it being down in the hole of fear. And when you get out of the hole, you come up on flat ground where you’re building confidence, and then you climb the mountain toward flow and peak performance. When you’re in the hole, you don’t need any extra pressure.

The last thing you need is pressuring your athlete. If somebody is going, “You got to do this skill now or you’re off the team,” that’s the last thing that a kid needs. What they need in that moment is, “What do you need?” You need to ask them, “How can I help you right now?” They often don’t know, so I’m going to give you, guys, 10 tips and these are going to cover both if you’re dealing with fear, or if you just deal with pressure in a competitive situation. Try to find one that you’re going to try to apply either with your team if you’re a coach or in your week if you are an athlete.


Tip #1: Time is Not a Motivator

Time is like my least favorite thing. I work with a lot of swimmers and I always say, if we could just get the clock off the wall, if there was no time, everyone would swim so much faster, because you’re so busy thinking about the time. “I got to get that time. If I don’t get that time, I’m no good.” On the other side with other sports that have different competitive seasons and they have certain skills they’ve got to get under control before the season starts, they are like, “I only have a month.” “I only have two weeks.” “Oh, my gosh, the competition is this weekend, and I’m not doing this skill well.”

What that does is it tenses up your body so that you actually lose control of your well-learned muscle techniques. If you could just trust your body, then you could relax. You could do your thing. You could hit the ball. Do the skill. You could make the dive. You could throw the pitch, but instead, you’re like, “I have to do it by tomorrow,” which makes you tense up and you end up doing these robo moves that are not what you’ve been training. It makes everything worse.


Tip #2: Everyone is Different

Some coaches are like, “You got to get it by tomorrow. The meet is coming up. Come on, everybody, get it into gear.” That might work with some people but for those of you who are a little bit more on the anxious side, that’s not helpful which brings me to tip #2, which is know that everyone is different. You all know the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Well, I say, don’t do unto others anyway in particular, because everybody is different. If I was coached by a really straightforward, cold, not kind coach and I did well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I should coach that way toward others, because this is probably that most common mistake coaches make. They assume the way you should coach is the way that you were coached specially if you were successful.

This especially happens at the high levels. There are different personalities. Some personalities can deal with pressure, no problem. I know a lot of kids that just naturally can deal with pressure. My world champion needs pressure. Then, there are some where the pressure becomes too much. I already put so much pressure on myself that any more will just make me implode.

Coaches have to be aware of who they’re dealing with. Are you dealing with somebody who needs a kick in the butt, or are you dealing with someone that’s already beating themselves up that any extra push is going to be too much? Know that, and you can actually coach a whole group of kids differently. It’s not easy and takes skill but you can be needling one kid while giving another some space, and that’s really how coaching should be done. You build a relationship with your athletes.


Tip #3: Let Your Athletes Set Their Own Goals

Now this, I can even boil this down to my two-year-old. If I ask her which one she wants to do, “Do you want to eat the broccoli or the green beans? Do you want to read this book or that book?” Then she picks and then she’s accountable to that choice. “All right, you said you’re going to eat the green beans, here you go.” If I’m just like, “Here, eat green beans.” She’s like, “Meh, I don’t want that.” If she got to choose, then she’s more likely to get out of her comfort zone to try something.

This goes for people of literally all ages. If you feel like you’ve had the choice, then you’re going to want to work toward it. If you’re setting your own goals like, “This is a scary skill. I want to get it. I want to get this bit by next week.” Then your coach goes, “Are you sure? Is that too big of a jump? What do you think? Is that something you can go for?” Then, they go, “Yes, I really want to try that.” They’re much more motivated that way than if you go, “You got to get this done by this date or you’re off the team.” If you can, give them a way to take some ownership.


Tip #4: Reframe Pressure

I like to do an exercise when I work with kids one on one. I have them imagine a pressuring situation. Think back to a situation that was horrible with so much pressure. Maybe you did okay, but most of the time you fell apart under the pressure. I have them feel those feelings and notice the thoughts of how stressful that was. And then I ask them to think of that exact same situation, but instead of pressure, I want them to focus on challenge.

Instead of going, “There’s so much pressure,” they go, “Oh, this is a challenge. Okay, I think I can do it and rise to the occasion.” and then I have them visualize it again thinking, “This is a big step for me. It was going to take everything I have, but I’m up for the challenge.” They end up doing a better routine or a better performance in their mind on that second turn than they did on the first.

Just be careful with the words that you use. Say “All right, this meet is going to be a challenge for us. We’re playing against a really good team,” or, “This tournament is going to be big challenge. Let’s step up to it.” Instead of, “Everything is on this. This is the only chance,” any of that stuff takes the pressure a little bit. Same with if you’re working on a difficult skill or have fear going on. Let them know, this is a leap of faith you’re taking here. A challenge. There’s no pressure. We’re going to love you no matter what. Even just looking at it like, “I’m nervous,” turns into, “I’m excited.” Nervous about the pressure, excited about the challenge. Use those words instead, you’ll notice the difference.


Tip #5: Encourage Communication

I talk about communication all the time. Anytime somebody asks me anything about, “What should I do with this kid?” The first thing that comes to mind is talk to them. Ask them what they want. Going back to our first tip that everybody is different, ask them, “How would you like to be supported?” Of course, you probably know that kids that need a little extra sweetness and the kids who you need to yell at or they’re not going to get off their butts and they appreciate it in the long term when they go and have success but most importantly, I recommend have a team meeting.

Talk about pressuring your athlete. Talk about what you need. Have people contribute. What do I need? What do you need? Is it different? Or, how interesting. Reflect, when there was a lot of pressure, how did you perform? When there was a big challenge, how did you perform? I would love it if you guys would do like half hour a week of just getting into the mental toughness training, or if you can, just once a month. Do 45 minutes where you have a team meeting and go into it. Ask them of how they’re feeling. Ask them what they want. That’s it. You’re going to find a lot of information that you would not have otherwise found.


Tip #6: Praise Effort

I say this to parents all the time, but we are in a society that is so outcome focused and we’re in this high-level sports that are obviously all about outcomes. You want to win, you want to improve, you want to be the best. You don’t want to train your whole life away for mediocrity, but if you are working your butt off and you’re not getting much back, because you’re not winning or you’re not getting the skill right away, you need that approval that somebody notices how hard you’re working.

If you can just say to that athlete that you know is struggling like, “Good job today. You’re working so hard and I can see it, and it’s going to pay off.” That can really help to take that pressure down a notch that you can see they’re struggling and that you’re really proud of them. Even if they’re not reaching the results that they should or could have, or the results that you want them to have.


Tip #7: Check Your Energy

I say in a lot of my parenting courses that you are the context where you need to be who you want your kids to be. If you are stressed, if you’re frustrated, if you’re in a bad mood, if you’re feeling the pressure of, “This weekend is a meet and these kids are going to make me look bad,” then you’re going to have a whole lot of stressed out kids on your hands. I guarantee that every single day in practice, you got at least 25% of the kids directly mirroring your attitude. If you show up pumped and bouncing around, happy, excited trying new stuff, the kids are going to be that same way.

If you show up in a foul mood, feeling the pressure with your ego on the line, worried about outcomes, that’s what’s going to happen with your kids. You got to take an honest self-appraisal and realize, “Am I in some way creating the vibe that’s turning my kids into these stressed cases?” And if so, try to make it something that you’re going to like want to be around.


Tip #8: Don’t Compare Your Athletes

Now, back to the type of person who’s more anxious and struggles a little bit more, you’re going to want to give them only the good stuff, praise their effort. They’re already comparing themselves to their friends, I guarantee you. They’re already feeling behind and bummed out. They already noticed that Claire is faster than her or that Jimmy is stronger. They know it, so if you say that, oh, it cuts deep because at least they’re like, “Maybe not everybody knows that this girl is better than me.”

If you’re like, “If you don’t catch up to her, you’re not going to move up next season,” where you think that’s motivating, it is not motivating. Just don’t do it. Parents too, don’t do it. Especially if it’s their best friend, don’t say, “Wow, your friend did a great job today.” Just don’t do it. Nobody benefits. You can say it to her in private like, “Hey, good job,” but don’t say it in front of your kid.


Tip #9: Preparation Reduces Pressure

Now, for the kids who get into the pressure zone at competition and really seem to fall apart and get anxious, you help them to become prepared. I even like to have a checklist of these are the things that I do before I compete. Where I write down my negative thoughts, crumple them up, and I throw them away. I eat this snack, take three deep breaths, say I’m in charge of myself, get my equipment ready and then I just go, for example. And I have a whole course and pre-performance routines in the Perform Happy community too, but help them to really feel like they know what to do and this means that you’re simulating those challenge situations.

Let’s say you have a meet coming up and I know, probably everybody is already doing this but just make sure that you’re giving them a simulation of that pressure situation so that they can get freaked out. You can help them calm down. Let them know it’s okay that you still love them anyway, and then they try it again. You put them in under pressure. You give them a chance to get in.

I always think of Michael Phelps. His coach would step on his goggles and break them and then have him swim. He’d hide his goggles. He’d ripped his cap, he’d do all these stuff so that he would have to be under pressure and have to deal with it so that then, when you see him in the Olympics and his goggles fill up with water, he already knows how to do it and he ends up getting the gold anyway.

Q: How do you feel about a coach that uses a child as an example of what not to do?


I don’t like that one bit. Any of this stuff, coaches think probably because they’ve seen it done by other coaches that that’s something to do, and when I was a gymnastics coach, I am absolutely guilty of this. But that’s not what we want to be focusing on. You always want to focus on, “This is what to do.” I have a little example. There was a girl who I worked with when I was coaching actually who was the squeaky wheel. This kid, she wanted any attention and negative attention was just fine. I was always like, “Stop it. Cut it out. Come on, get it together.” Just like giving her attention basically, giving her what she wanted which was attention.

Then, one day, I decided, all right, I’m going to completely ignore the negative, just completely ignore it like it’s not even happening. Even if it’s annoying to other kids. I’m going to completely ignore it and I’m going to praise the heck out of any teeny thing good she does. I did. I started being like, “Whoa, great pointed toes. Awesome. You guys, did you see that?” Knowing that she wanted that attention and then she started shaping up. She started getting a little bit more just like she really wanted me to see her doing well and I was like, “Yes, look at you. Look at her, everybody.”


Tend to the Positive, Not to the Negative

If you can take that and like show everybody what you do want to see, not only are you helping the other kids learn but you’re also helping that kid get the attention that they want. Okay, she says, “Me either especially with my girl who’s in a major mental block right now.” Now, I’ll go back to that mental block. When you’re in a mental block, when you’re in the hole, you do not need any pressure. What you need is a systematic approach to slowly rebuild confidence and if what you’re doing as a coach is not building confidence, then don’t do it. That’s it. They don’t need pressure, they don’t need to feel any worse, they already feel so, so bad.

Q: “Thoughts on how to get a gymnast to get past feeling she wants to be able to get skills right the first time and afraid of falling.”


That’s tough. We have the hairs, who these are kids that will just check it. They’ll be like, “I’ll try that, sure,” and it’s ugly and there’s legs everywhere and their toes are flexed and they’re like landing it super scary but they’re like, “Whoa, I did it.” And then they try it again and they get a little better and better and better and better and better.

Then, we’ve got these kids that are too scared, and then they’re just working drills. Then, eventually these two kids arrive at the finish line at the same time with a beautifully executed scary skill, but one of them didn’t even try it for a year. The other one is trying it like crazy, but it’s ugly. I always recommend just know who you’re dealing with. She wants to get it right the first time, she’s afraid of failing. It’s okay. It’s okay to be afraid of failing and that goes back to praising effort.


The Unconditional Love Factor

Then, the final thing that I want to leave you guys with is the unconditional love factor. When I was coaching gymnastics, I had a kid on beam who was a level 9. She was a super rock star. Man, was she good, and there was one day when she fell. I can’t remember if it was once or twice on beam. She had a bad beam routine at a meet, hung her head, walked over to me and she said, “I’m a bad person.” That was what came out of her mouth like I was going to punish her and I looked at her and I said, “Oh, honey, you are not a bad person. You’re a gymnast who fell off the beam, and that’s it.”

In those coaching situations where you can see that a kid has completely wrapped her identity up in the outcome is when you have to especially let them know, “If you fall 500 times on a beam routine, I am still going to love you.” That’s the kid who’s going to come to you and say, “I don’t know why but I’m feeling scared. Can I have a spot today?” If you can just give it to them, just give it to them. Get them over the hump. Get them out of the hole, then you can say, “You don’t need a spot. Go do it.”


Give Them What They Want

If they’re in the hole emotionally, physically, give them what they need. Let them know they’re loved no matter what and then you push them out of their comfort zone, because they do need that. I’m going to tell you, coaches are supposed to push kids out of their comfort zone. That’s their job, but if a kid is already so far out of their comfort zone with fear, then your job is done and all you got to do is love them through it and help them. Parents, you are the soft place to land. Don’t make your kids uncomfortable, don’t tell them what to do, don’t give them any extra pressure. You’re just the good cop and coaches, you get to be the bad cop a little bit.


That’s our time for today. Thank you guys so much for being here with me especially you guys who are here live. Please join us either on the Perform Happy podcast, on Facebook or if you want more tips on mental toughness, you can subscribe to my email list over at, and I’ll see you guys again next week. Bye!

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.